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Book Review


Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History. New York: Routledge, 2006; 144 pp. $29.95 (paperback)

     Due to the growth of the field of world history, several publishers have commissioned short works designed to serve as survey course supplementary reading or the building blocks for topics seminars. One of these series, "Themes in World History" by Routledge, under the editorship of Peter Stearns, features studies by scholars both young and old, but all with established reputation their field. These include of Migration in World History (2004) by Pat Manning, The Indian Ocean in World History (2003) by Milo Kearny and Asian Democracy in World History (2004) by Alan T. Wood. Fitting easily in such good company in terms of both scholarship and global reach, is Jeffrey M. Pilcher's Food in World History. Pilcher, the author of Que Vivan Tamale: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998), fully achieves his goal of providing at once a comparative and chronologically driven narrative of culinary cultures and patterns of consumption and production from Mammoth hunting to globalization.

     Divided into four parts of four chapters of about seven pages each, Pilcher's narrative addresses the principle subjects and analytical positions taken on such topics as the role of gender in early agricultural production, the Columbian Exchange, the sugar and spice trade, the evolution of national, colonial and migrant cuisines, and the post-World War II low cost, low wage food production system pioneered by McDonald's Corporation. Pilcher counts the human and environmental costs of these developments, from global slavery to global obesity, but his discussion never rise to the level of soapbox or bully pulpit, save his conclusion which dispassionately reminds the Western reader of the global poverty and inequality which makes the rich Western diet, wherever it is found, possible.

     The weaknesses of the work, such as they are, are inherent in nature of such an enterprise. Pilcher is not and cannot be a expert in all cuisines, He favors exemplification of global processes from those cultures he knows best, the Americas and Europe, but neither India nor China are ignored and attempts are made to include Africa and the Middle East on his large canvass. He is wise enough to avoid risky asides or misrepresentation, but (very) occasionally engages in needless speculation that so departs from his usually strong analysis that students can briefly lose their way. To avoid this rare event, this writer prepared (and can make available to any user) a 100 question student reading guide that keeps them focused on its valuable content.

     That focus was important to me as I used the work as an introduction to a course that more or less follows it contents, though at much greater depth and extensive supplemental reading, including Andrew Dalby's Dangerous Tastes (2001), Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986), Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2002) and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001). Since most of my students were core-course seeking undergraduate non-history majors at the academic moral equivalent of senior secondary/Advanced Placement level, I knew they would need a solid foundation and a certain degree of comfort if we were to exploit these resources socratically. The student response was very positive: they much preferred this work to readings in its longer, bolder, denser and somewhat Eurocentric chief competition, Reay Tannahill's History of Food (1995) and also Kenneth F. Kiple's A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization (2007), which was reviewed by Candice Goucher in this journal (Vol. 5, no. 3, 2008). The full value of Pilcher's work was revealed to me in ways both direct and subtle. Students had no trouble writing their answers to the study questions I wrote for Food in World History and easily recalled the answers orally in class. More important, when writing their essays, students had developed such a command of their subject and sources that they did not feel the need to always refer to their "text," but confidently drew on their readings in depth for answers where appropriate.

     Like David Christian's This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity (2007), Food in World History is, for all its brevity, reasonably comprehensive. It avoids cant and delivers what it promises: a very accessible introduction to its manifold subject suitable for a wide range of student audiences that offers hope to teachers and students hard pressed to keep up with expanding world history content and analysis.

Marc Jason Gilbert is co-editor of World History Connected and the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in World History at Hawaii Pacific University.

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